Now that the Spanish summer quarters have turned out to be the Spanish winter quarters as well, it’s time to ignore the strategic disadvantages of that (relative density of opera houses in the vicinity: meh) and focus on one of the strategic advantages: lots and lots of coastline, meaning lots and lots of fresh fish and seafood.
Most of the time, I walk from the fish counter straight into the kitchen to cook and only remember that I wanted to take photos when there’s nothing left but a few fish bones on my plate.
Apart from the variety and the prices, the whole procedure of buying fish over here is a ritual far different from Germany. In most of Germany, with its meager coast areas only in the far North (Baltic Sea, North Sea), fresh sea fish isn’t the most common sight. Prices are signed out per 100g and if you find something at no more than 1,00€/100g, it’s your lucky day. On the bright side, more and more fish counters mark ecologically responsible and sustainable fish – the most common is the MSC sign, also to be found on more and more frozen fish products. As a result, I don’t buy any fish in Germany that doesn’t have some seal of responsible and sustainable fishing.
That’s something I miss in Spain. I haven’t seen any MSC seals so far, unless at the outlets of German supermarkets in the frozen goods section.
On the plus side, Spain has a far bigger selection, also of regionally fished products. In Germany, your decision is basically whether you want 100g of this or that fillet, with coalfish (okay), pangasius (meh) and salmon (pricey) dominating the selections.
In Spain, there are meters upon meters of whole fish on ice beds in the stores. There isn’t even a supermarket without a fish counter, displaying rape (goosefish) and rodaballo (turbot), the classics bacalao (cod) and merluza (European hake) or regional favorites like cabracho (red dragonhead) and chicharro (Atlantic horse mackarel). Entire bonitos (bonito), large steaks of atún (tuna) and some of the Mediterranean highlights like dorada (gilt-head bream) and lubina (sea bass). Then there are the ones I’ve never seen before: caballa, corvina, gallineta, palomita and besugo.
…feel like taking home an entire bonito?
Have your pick!
And the seafood! There are not just – German scenario – a handful overprices bags of mussels during high season, no, there are mejillones (the kg at 1,50€ instead of 5,99€) and chirlas and almejas and navajas and berberechos. Every day. And langostinos (prawns) and cangrejos (crabs) and necoras (velvet crab) and buey de mar (brown crab). And sepia and calamar (squid) and pulpo (octopus) – in their entirety, of course! – and chipirones (baby squid) and pulpitos (baby octopus) and dozens of other wondrous things.
And shopping for fish is not a plain grocery task, no, it’s a ritual. First of all, the prices are in kg, not per 100g. You draw a number and line up. The wait can easily be half an hour, while you try to decide on just what delicacy you’d like for dinner. The ladies and gents behind the counter are in no hurry, but neither are the clients. It is generally agreed on that choosing and preparing fish takes time.
When it’s your turn, it’s not “how many gram of which fillet?”, but it’s “Hello, dear. What would you like today?”
Then you get to pick out the fish you’d like and nobody will mind if you halfway crawl across the counter to point at a specific specimen that caught your eye. That leads to the next question: “Well, darling, now how do I prep it for you?”
The first time, I was completely confused: “What?!”
Thankfully, the lady on the other side of the counter was patient. “Do you want to stew it, bake it, put it on the grill, pan-sear it? Do you prefer fillets or steaks? Should I leave it whole and just remove the bowels and scales? Do you want it split open? Head attached, or in an extra bag?”
“Uhm… oven-baked?” I stammered.
The good thing is that the women (usually, it’s more women than men) on the other side of the counter know a lot more about what you will cook that evening than you ever did.
“Well, darling, I’d say I prepare the tail for oven-baking and cut the rest in steaks, how ’bout it?”
You get to nod mutely, and then you can only stare while your dinner is being expertly scaled, trimmed and cut open and cleaned by enormous knives and one of the handy hoses that hang from the ceiling every few meters. On the side, your fish saleswoman will give you recipes and cooking tips, exchange barbs with her colleagues and possibly discuss last nights TV episodes with you. They’re never in a bad mood or in a hurry (and I’ve been here for four months and I obviously eat a lot of fish).
In the end, you get your fish handed to you in a sealed plastic bag with good wishes for your dinner and all the service doesn’t cost you an extra cent.
cola de merluza al horno – oven-baked tail of European hake, a Basque classic.
[Simmer 1 onion and 3 medium-sized sliced potatoes in a pan with 2tbsp. of olive oil until soft. transfer to an oven-proof dish, add the cleaned and open hake’s tail and bake for 20-25 minutes at 175°C. The potatoes may need some salt after serving, the fish doesn’t need anything at all (unless you feel like it).]
After the tail was gone, I still had the merluza steaks left. The lady at the fish counter recommended lonchas de merluza en salsa verde (sea hake steaks in green sauce) – another Basque classic that revolves around garlic and lots of parsley.
salsa verde in the making – [heat 2-3tbsp. olive oil in a pan on medium heat, add the garlic or a minute, add 1tbsp of flour, stir into a thick sauce. Place the fish steaks in the sauce and simmer until done. No stirring, just shaking of the pan every now and then – the gelatin seeping out of the fish bone and skin binds the sauce. Cover with lid if necessary (a spray-lid that has wholes and is merely there to prevent grease stains while frying things works best). Cooking time depends on the size and thickness of the steaks. Add parsley 5 minutes before the end of cooking time and allow to blend in a smooth sauce. Season with some salt. Serve with fresh baguette.]
Another big seaside classic are anchoas – fresh anchovies. Their price very much depends on the daily fishing success and can range from 4€/kg (great) to 10€/kg (expensive). If they’re cheap, all you need is some patience and a well-trained upper back, since cleaning anchovies takes time and tends to put most pressure on upper back and shoulder/neck muscles.
Of course, I got an authentic Basque crash course in prepping these beauties: only use your hands, you need no knife. First, zip of back and belly fins. Then, open up the belly with a thumb nail, open from bottom to top. Take out bowels, then put pressure on the head until you can loosen one side fillet from the head and the spine. Do the same with the other side fillet. Tweak off tail fin. Rinse, done, next!
It takes some time and some practice, but it’s fairly easy. You’ll just get some tense shoulders and a slight backache after a while!
With a set of prepared anchovy fillets, there are two classic methods to eat them. The first is “en cazuela”:
Simmer two cloves of garlic cut into slices with two small dried red chili peppers (guindilla, if you have) in sufficient olive oil on medium heat. The garlic mustn’t brown.
Add the anchovy fillets to the pan.
Stir gently at times, until the anchovies are done (they turn white). Salt according to your tastes. Serve immediately with some baguette bread.
Next up are two classics – dorada and lubina from the oven. Both are fairly simple things, taking about 20-25 minutes in the oven at 180°C. Tun the oven to 200°C for 20 minutes first and bake some peeled potato slices wedges with salt, pepper, olive oil and rosemary and you’ve got something to do with this dish. Perhaps a little salad on the side, done.
dorada (2,50€ a piece) or gilt-headed bream on her way to being wrapped up in paper and baked in the oven:
Rinse out the cleaned fish and pad it dry. Season it on the inside and outside with salt, pepper, thyme and rosemary. Place two lemon slices inside the stomach cavity and two more on top for good measure. Drizzle 1-2tbsp. olive oil on top. Wrap well in baking paper and bake for about 20-25 minutes. Prepare to swoon when opening the packages at the table!
The paper method also works marvels on lubina (sea bass) – often to be head for 2,99€ a piece, which makes a nice light dinner for two with oven-roasted potato wedges and a salad.
The trick with the lubina is not to do anything – just rinse it clean, pad it dry and wrap it up, and into the oven in goes.
Meanwhile, prepare a sofrito (family secret to follow): In a pan, put 2 sliced cloves or garlic into 2 tbsp. olive oil without having heated up the oil beforehand. Add one or two dried red chili peppers (or a piece of guindilla), turn up to medium heat and simmer for a few minutes until your kitchen smells to die for. Set the pan aside and allow the sofrito to cool of.
When the fish is done, open the package and put the fish opened up like a book onto a plate. Salt lightly. Sprinkle lightly with white wine vinegar. Then, through a fine sieve that allows only the scented oil to pass through, add the sofrito.
I’d say “devour immdiately”, but it’s unnecessary – there is a reason why there is no photo of this particular dish, despite it being on the menu at least once a week.
Oh, right. The second method to eat fresh anchovies. Sorry, I got distracted by the sea bass there for a minute. The second method is revuelto con anchoas:
In a bit of olive oil (1tbsp), sauté the anchovies fillets at medium to high heat.
When the anchovies turn from pink to white, crack a few eggs into the pan. Wait for half a minute before you gently start stirring, mixing the fish and the egg – the egg white still needs to be able to be told from the yolk in the end, or it’s not a revuelto. If you are a Basque nerd, you will also use only a wooden spoon or fork for stirring.
Voilà, revuelto de anchoas!
For this recipe, you need less anchovies than for the cazuela – something to consider when cleaning anchovies, having a backache and guests coming over!
The next time, let me see whether I manage to snap a picture of langostinos al ajillo or lubina al horno or pulpitos a la plancha before eating them…